From the first sentence of the book, it is evident that Commager seeks to establish the significance of the Lee family in American history, including also the Carters, the maternal grandparents of Robert E. Lee. The result is an excellent biography that can inspire young readers to overcome hardships and disappointments and to accomplish great things. The material chosen by Commager seems to have been carefully selected to hold the attention of young readers and to urge them to use Lee as a role model for their own lives. Ward’s illustrations are designed for the same purpose, as those that depict Lee emphasize the gallantry and nobility of his character. Commager also traces the growing importance of spiritual faith in Lee’s life. He clearly describes Lee’s conviction that God controls human history and that one can only do what is right. This faith can be seen even in Commager’s quotation from Lee’s farewell message to his defeated army in 1865.
Another aspect of this biography that appeals to young adults is the description of Lee’s love for animals, especially his horses and cats. Commager reveals the role of Lee’s horses—first Creole, then Grace Darling, and finally the famous Traveller—in his military career. The author relates several examples of Lee’s love of cats, and he quotes from a humorous letter that Lee wrote from Texas to his young daughter in Virginia.
In America’s Robert E. Lee, Commager emphasizes how the stories that young Robert heard from his father...
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Commager’s established reputation as a historian and his emphasis on Lee’s character make the book a classic of young adult literature. Writing almost a century after the Civil War, Commager captures and preserves the life of a man whom many historians have called the last gentleman soldier in American history.
By concentrating on the dilemma that forced Lee to choose between his loyalty to the Union and his loyalty to Virginia, Commager illustrates a trait in Lee’s character that is often lacking in leaders of modern times: honor and the desire to do right, even when facing difficult circumstances. By using direct quotes from letters written by Lee, especially those to his son and to his cousin in the early months of 1861, the author leaves no doubt concerning Lee’s feelings and the difficulty of his decision.
A fitting testimony to the value of this book is Commager’s emotional description of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in 1965. By quoting a Union officer who was at the scene, the author makes clear what Bruce Catton has called A Stillness at Appomattox (1953).